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Small Innovations Add Up to Big Savings

Encouraging employees to offer suggestions openly creates a culture of innovation.

The cumulative effect of many small innovations in processes and services can be more powerful than a big breakthrough. In their book Innovative Lean, Andy Brophy and John Bicheno pinpoint these five keys that make an idea management system work, keeping these innovations at the heart of operations.

  1. Communicate the vision. Management must believe that employees are sources of innovative ideas and show that they welcome employee participation. Encouraging questions, removing barriers, and testing new ways of doing things all help get the message across.
  2. Generate ideas continually, not in batches. Employees need an easy idea submission process, like a white board or colored index cards. A monthly theme like safety, reducing delays or improving the customer experience can keep ideas flowing.
  3. Filter ideas fast and give feedback. Employees need to see that even if an idea is not implemented, creativity is valued. Sometimes, helping the employee modify the idea can make it work.
  4. Implement and reward good ideas fast. A decentralized approval process will be more effective than a central committee to get ideas implemented fast. Employees have been shown to value seeing the results of their improvements more than cash rewards. Depending on work-group culture, a public "thank you," lunch with the boss or receiving a $25 gift card might be appropriate rewards.
  5. Spread ideas across the organization. Copying an idea is an idea. Spreading ideas leverages improvements across the company. Share them in newsletters, management meetings or regular idea "showcases."

Allan Kempert, continuous improvement coordinator at an 87-employee metal fabricator, told Brophy and Bicheno that asking how to make employees' jobs easier helped them feel more empowered, listened to, and happy about coming to work. At last count, his company was implementing a thousand small ideas a year, saving many thousands of dollars in labor and other costs.


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